By Conrad Dudderar
After helping lead a Yukon nonprofit ministry through a period of strong growth, Joanne Riley believes she’s right where she belongs.
Having stepped down in late November after 5-1/2 years with Compassionate Hands, Riley is the new executive director at the Child Abuse Response Team (C.A.R.T.) House in El Reno.
“Helping children through trauma has been very, very close to my heart,” Riley said. “I knew that child advocacy centers existed, but I never got to watch it ‘work’ until I came here. I am just amazed.
“You have to have a passion for these kiddos.”
C.A.R.T. is a child advocacy center that provides a warm and caring home environment for child abuse victims. They typically serve children ages 3-17 years in Canadian, Blaine and Kingfisher counties with the motto “Helping Put the Pieces Back Together.”
The C.A.R.T. House was established in the early 1990s to reduce the trauma of abuse victims by eliminating the need for multiple interviews – so the child does not have to repeatedly tell their story of abuse.
Canadian County has one of only 20 child advocacy centers in Oklahoma accredited by the National Children’s Alliance (NCA).
For more than 30 years, Canadian County’s C.A.R.T. House has provided an innovative response to child abuse.
Before the C.A.R.T. House opened in the early 1990s, a child was required to tell their tragic story of abuse to law enforcement agents, attorneys, child welfare workers, and medical professionals.
The C.A.R.T. team is comprised of caring professionals who share information and work together to better help child abuse victims.
The team includes the C.A.R.T. House staff, forensic interviewers and sexual assault nurse examiners, along with law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and child welfare/juvenile services representatives.
Some 275 video- and audio-recorded interviews with abuse victims are conducted annually inside Canadian County’s child advocacy center.
These interviews are not “interrogations” but more of a conversation that allows these children to “tell their story,” Riley emphasized.
Law enforcement agencies and the Department of Human Services request the C.A.R.T. House conduct interviews as part of their investigations into suspected child abuse.
Only the child and interviewer are in the room, with law enforcement and DHS personnel watching behind a one-way mirror.
Cases may then be presented to the District Attorney’s Office, which decides whether to prosecute alleged perpetrators.
The C.A.R.T. team also provides victims and their families with resources for mental health, counseling, medical, and other needed services.
Family advocate Kalee Vculek helps children feel safe and comfortable when they come to the C.A.R.T. House to be interviewed.
“Our goal is that they have a safe space here,” said Vculek, who joined the C.A.R.T. House in fall 2021.
Vculek embraces the chance to help children and their families through an often-difficult process.
“We help to reduce trauma because they’ve already experienced enough,” she said. “Sometimes they come here in times of crisis.
“So, de-escalating that and checking in with the family is what we do.”
Having these video interviews often keeps child victims from having to speak in open court about a traumatic event in their lives.
“Unfortunately, there are situations where kids do have to testify – even with the interview,” Vculek noted. “But typically, our interviewers are able to testify on their behalf. It really depends on the age and the situation.”
The new C.A.R.T. House director said Vculek has taught her so much over the past month.
“Kalee does an amazing job with those kids, giving them a fun experience even though they’ve been in a traumatic situation,” Riley pointed out.
“You can’t change what’s happened, but you can help the child change how they look at it. That’s what Kalee’s done. … I love working with her as a team.”
The C.A.R.T. House’s mission statement is “To improve the way professionals identify, investigate, prosecute and treat victims of child abuse and neglect; committing ourselves to teamwork and dedicated to reducing a child’s trauma.”
Overseeing Canadian County’s C.A.R.T. House are members of the non-profit Child Welfare Citizens Advisory Board of Oklahoma:
President Jeri Poplin, Vice President Eric Epplin, Secretary Eilene Gibbons, Treasurer David Anderson, State Rep. Rhonda Baker, Carolyn Husmann, Micheal Oglesby, Suzanne Thompson, and Carrie Whitlow.
The C.A.R.T. House is funded entirely through federal grants and donor gifts. New Director Riley is confident her extensive grant-writing experience will greatly benefit this Canadian County non-profit.
Tax-deductible contributions may be mailed to: C.A.R.T. House, P.O. Box 1424, El Reno OK 73036. For more information, call (405) 422-3459 or visit www.cancochildadvocates.org